Monday, November 30, 2009

December 2008: Preserving Our Culinary Heritage

One of the aims of the Slow Food Movement is the preservation of culinary heritage. This may mean trying to revive near-extinct native species of vegetables or fruit, re-discovering the delights of native edibles, or returning to old, long ignored recipes. The recent popularity of “Heirloom” fruits and vegetables has put a spotlight on heritage species that had all but disappeared because they are irregular in shape or colour, or don’t preserve well enough for shipping long distances, or aren’t suitable for commercial handling.

The “heirloom” designation is open to interpretation, but generally means that the species has been around, un-hybridized, for quite awhile: some say 100 years, some say 50. The fruit or vegetables are also naturally pollinated, not lab developed or grown, and never genetically modified or cloned.

There are more than 17,000 varieties of apples that have been recorded, but even apple experts (pomologists) know only a small fraction of these. While many heirloom varieties are now available at markets and specialty food stores, the vast majority of the apples available to the consumer are hybrids, commercially developed for their ability to withstand travel, the ease with which they can be machine harvested, or their appealing colour and texture. Among the hundreds of heirloom varieties still being grown in small quantities, several are still available commercially: Northern Spy (originating in New York around 1800), Granny Smith (from Australia, developed in the mid-1800’s), Golden Russet (believed to be one of the oldest varieties), Snow or Royal Snow (recorded in Canada in the early 16oo’s), and McIntosh (developed in Ontario in the early 1800’s).

Heirloom tomatoes come in an astounding range of colours and shapes and sizes, completely unfamiliar to those of us who are used to perfectly symmetrical, uniformly red hybrid tomatoes that appear on the supermarket shelves. Their tastes are equally astonishing, ranging from sweet to earthy, tart to nutty. Among the many, many heirloom tomato varieties, a few worth noting include the Brandywine, Hillbilly, Rainbow, and Mortage Lifter (so-named because the man who developed it sold enough plants at $1 each during the Depression to pay off his house in four years). Have a look at The Heirloom Tomato Cookbook by Mimi Luebbermann.

The re-discovery and preservation of old recipes has resulted in a proliferation of cook books and web sites that present old-time recipes gleaned from newspapers, magazines and long out of print cookbooks. and are just three of thousands. In most families there are several handed-down recipes that have passed from mother to daughter through generations (the home kitchen being, until relatively recently, the domain of the family’s females). Such recipes are treasured, partly because of tradition and family pride, but also because they are so good! It’s probably because Grandma’s recipe set the standard and anything else was off the mark, but everyone who has a family heirloom recipe is convinced it makes the best pie, pickles, pork, or pudding they’ve ever eaten. My family is no exception. Here’s Grandma Green’s recipe for the best mincemeat in the world.

3 lemons 1lb. Valencia raisins 1 nutmeg
1 lb. beef suet 2 lb. apples
1 lb. currants 1 ½ lb. Demerara sugar
Pare the rinds off the lemons very thin and boil for 15 min in a little water. Drain and chop the rinds and mix with the suet, currants, and raisins. Peel and chop the apples and add to the mix. Grate half the nutmeg into the mixture and add the sugar and the juice from the lemons. Mix well and store in sterilized glass jars for at least two weeks before making into pies or tarts.

For more information about the Slow Food Movement, go to or contact Renée Girard at for information about the Pelham Convivium.

1 comment:

  1. Another such site for preserving our culinary heritage is You can post all of your grandma's recipes there. :) There is something new there every day.